Six Months in as an Education Fellow: My Experience So Far

Posted by: Dyanna Christopher, MPH, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellow

My first few months as a Genetics Education & Engagement Fellow, which have included rotations at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and ASHG, have been full of lessons, new experiences, and opportunities to increase my skill set.

2019-2020 Education Fellow
Dyanna Christopher, MPH, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellow (courtesy Ms. Christopher)

At NHGRI, I’ve learned more about government agencies and how they work. I’ve begun to develop partnerships across the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the surrounding community, and have seen that the NIH is a collaborative environment, and how small the genetics community is in the DC area. At ASHG, I have discovered some of the roles of scientific societies and the importance of member relationships. I have seen the behind-the-scenes work required to build a community and plan valuable events. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and even spearhead events helping to increase genetic understanding and health literacy in different communities.

My major project while at NHGRI was the NBC4 Health and Fitness Expo. This project required immense collaboration and preparation. Though weekend snow covered the streets of the district, we were still able to educate and engage over 200 community members and talk to them about genetic risk assessment, direct-to-consumer genetics, basic genetics and genomics, and some of the things that happen at NHGRI. Seeing the public converse about how genetic health history impacts their lives was a highlight for me. It’s so important to show those who may not have a vested interest in science how it impacts them and affects their day-to-day lives.

This was not my only project that focused on facilitating and increasing genetics education and engagement. Shortly after starting my rotation at ASHG, I was able to help find and develop tools for ASHG members that aid them in answering questions about genetics and genomics from nonscientific communities. ASHG is a trusted source for up-to-date genetics information and my hope is that members of ASHG can locate resources that help them answer and respond to public inquiries.

I have also had the opportunity to speak with budding scientists through an event organized by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program. I served as a panelist and talked to gifted high school students about my career and educational experiences in the field. This event allowed me to speak on the importance of genetics, genomics, and health literacy, and to bring awareness to the importance of understanding these topics. It was great to see so many young people excited about science and the influx of different career options available to budding scientists. I’ve also had the opportunity to help increase diversity at NHGRI by helping to find and recruit committee members from diverse populations who have a vested interest in genetics and genomics.

The fellowship is just getting started. I know that there will be even more opportunities to learn, serve, and develop as a scientist and educator.

Interested in the intersection of genetics with education and public engagement? Consider applying for the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellowship!  Applications are open through April 19, 2019.

Life as a Genetics & Public Policy Fellow: Hello from the Hill!

Posted By: Eve Granatosky, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

Around this time last year, I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation and trying to coordinate a date for my thesis defense. This week, I helped prepare a United States Senator for an event on drug pricing and met with constituent groups on issues ranging from cancer research to school nutrition. This dramatic and exciting shift was only possible because of the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship.

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Checking out the best view on the Hill from the Speaker’s Balcony. (courtesy Dr. Granatosky)

Throughout most of my time in graduate school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in science policy, and was looking for an opportunity that would allow me to apply my scientific expertise in rare diseases and preclinical drug discovery in a policy setting. The Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship was a great fit with my background and interest in exploring multiple spaces within the policy world. So far, I’ve had the chance to work in both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, and later this year I’ll complete my fellowship with the Policy and Advocacy team at ASHG. I’m currently about six months into my fellowship, and am happy to report that the experience so far has been just as excellent as I had hoped.

Budgetary and Strategic Planning at NHGRI

I started my fellowship in September within the Policy and Program Analysis Branch (PPAB) at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Right away, I got to jump into several projects the branch was working on, including drafting the Institute’s Fiscal Year 2020 Congressional Budget Justification, an important step in NHGRI’s being funded each year. This was a great way to learn about many of the research projects funded by NHGRI and write about them in a way that was concise, engaging, and accessible. I also helped organize feedback from the wider genomics community that was collected as part of NHGRI’s ongoing strategic planning process.

A highlight of this rotation was presenting a poster at the annual NHGRI Symposium. My PPAB colleagues and I described some recent studies on public perceptions of the use of genetic data by law enforcement (particularly for solving cold cases) and discussed potential policy options to address genetic privacy. After surveying symposium participants on their own views on this topic, we learned that while the NHGRI community was mostly supportive of the use of genetic data for law enforcement for solving crimes, they overall reported having more concerns about their genetic privacy than do members of the general public who have been surveyed.

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PPAB’s Devona Perrineau and I getting ready to talk about genetic privacy and poll the symposium attendees. (courtesy Dr. Granatosky)

A Wide Range of Health and Education Topics on the Hill

This January, I started my second fellowship rotation, in the office of Senator Richard Blumenthal from my home state of Connecticut. I work with two other staffers on the health and education portfolios, including issues related to biomedical research. Within the health space, I’ve worked on a wide range of issues, including antibiotic stewardship, e-cigarettes, prescription drugs, and dietary supplements. In education, I’m working on issues related to social and emotional learning and oversight of predatory colleges and universities.

So far, I’ve been involved in both long-term projects in these areas as well as the day-to-day business of the office. I really enjoy getting to meet with Connecticut constituents to discuss their priorities and concerns – I feel like I learn something new every meeting and it’s fascinating to get to hear about so many different topics.

Another major part of my job as a fellow is drafting bills, letters, memos, and briefings for the Senator to help him prepare for events. Putting together memos and briefings is probably where my research and analysis skills from graduate school are most valuable. These documents need to succinctly synthesize what a particular event is about, what stakeholders are involved and what their perspectives are, what past legislative or oversight work the Senator has done in that issue area, and what message he should try to get across in his remarks. Overall, I really like the pace of my office and the scope of issues I work on, and I’m looking forward to what the next few months will bring!

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Meeting visitors from Connecticut is one of my favorite parts of my fellowship rotation on Capitol Hill. (courtesy Dr. Granatosky)

Applying My Scientific Training in a Policy Environment

As I look back on the past six months, I realize how valuable this fellowship has been for my career and professional development. I’ve solidified my interest in pursuing a path in science policy, and thought more specifically about what kind of professional positions I might like to pursue in the future. I’m constantly refining my communication skills, particularly in writing for different audiences and purposes. I’m improving my project and time management skills, and learning to how to prioritize short- and long-term goals. Maybe most importantly, I really like what I’m doing! This fellowship has shown me first hand that I can apply my scientific training outside of a research environment in a way that’s both personally and professionally fulfilling.

I would definitely recommend this fellowship to any early career genetics professionals who are interested in careers in policy. Beyond getting to do the kind of awesome work I talked about here, you’ll benefit from mentorship and support from the whole community of fellowship alumni. Thank you to ASHG and NHGRI for making this experience possible, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of my fellowship brings!

Interested in applying for the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship? Applications are open through April 19.

Pivoting Your Career Toward Science Policy and Advocacy

By: Staff

ASHG and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) co-sponsor the Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship to give genetics professionals an opportunity to contribute to the policymaking process. If you’re interested in the development and implementation of genetics-related health and research policies at a national level, then this Fellowship may be right for you. Applications are open now through April 19, 2019.

Questions about what the position is like? Read on for real-world details from past Fellows about their experiences.

How is the position structured?

The Fellowship lasts for 16 months, during which time the Fellow rotates through three positions within the Policy and Program Analysis Branch of NHGRI, a congressional office of a member of Congress or a committee, and the Policy & Advocacy Department at ASHG. This allows Fellows to gain experience in different roles of national policymaking and decide which aspects of policy and work settings they are interested in pursuing as a career.

2016-17 Fellow Christa Wagner said, “The ASHG/NHGRI Fellowship has provided me with a diverse array of experiences, both in terms of topics covered and settings in which I worked on policy. The Fellowship provides an exceptional experience for those with a background in genetics to play a role in effective policymaking.”

Cari Young, 2015-16 Genetics & Public Policy Fellow, walks us through her experiences.

What kind of work will I do? 

While it depends on the needs of each organization at the time of arrival, 2017-18 Fellow Nikki Meadows gave us a look into her work during two of her rotations through several blog posts.

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2017-18 Fellow Nikki Meadows discusses advocacy with members.

During her rotation with the Senate HELP Committee, Nikki organized a panel of genetics experts to answer questions from congressional staff working on health issues. This allowed her the opportunity to network with seasoned geneticists and help enhance the scientific knowledge of congressional staff. At ASHG, Nikki also provided updates to members on important policy issues such as the federal biomedical research budget  and genetic privacy. She additionally promoted the ASHG Advocacy Center and encouraged scientists to make use of these vital tools, both at the 2018 Annual Meeting and through online forums.

While these certainly weren’t all of Nikki’s duties, she explored several areas of work with a variety of audiences. Nikki said, “I had some amazing opportunities during the course of this Fellowship. I’ve gained so much from this program, both personally and professionally, that I am forever changed by it.”

Will this position help further my career? 

The rotational aspect of the position is a huge bonus to many applicants. 2015-16 Fellow Cari Young said, “This Fellowship provided a unique opportunity to take on varied roles within the science and health policy landscape, allowing me to experience the pros and cons of working in each setting and helping me to crystallize my thinking on where I might want to go next. It also made me a more marketable applicant for policy positions beyond the Fellowship.” As Fellows gain experience in different areas of public policy in just 16 months, it is a vital starting point that lays a solid base.

Being a Fellow additionally opens a new professional network to benefit from. 2012-13 Fellow Laura Koontz said, “Not only has the experience been invaluable, the network of Fellows I’ve joined as an alumna are among the best policy professionals in D.C. The Fellowship has also allowed me to fully realize my commitment to bettering the lives and treatment of people with cancer – the reason I got into scientific research in the first place!”

What kind of jobs might I get afterwards?

Check out our policy fellowship page to see where all our past Fellows are working now! Our Fellows have gone on to positions at the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the White House, and a number of other organizations focused on science and health.

Applications are open now through April 19, 2019. Apply today!

AAAS 2019: Science Transcending Boundaries

Posted by: Eve Granatosky, PhD, 2018-19 Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

Earlier this month, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held right here in Washington, DC. Themed ‘Science Transcending Boundaries,’ the program featured sessions on how science can bring together people, ideas, and solutions from different disciplines and sectors to address the world’s most pressing problems. This conference was very different from others I’ve attended in the past, which have focused on one specific scientific area. The AAAS Meeting also had a strong focus on science policy and communication, and I was excited to attend those sessions as well as explore scientific talks in different areas.

A common theme across the policy and communication sessions was the importance of understanding your audience – what are their priorities, and what information is valuable and relevant to them? At one session, panelists discussed the many legitimate influences on policy and policymakers, and how scientific evidence is usually only one factor that contributes to decision making. In another, panelists spoke about the challenges of getting usable scientific information to policymakers, and described the important role of boundary organizations that span the science-policy interface in facilitating effective two-way communication. Later on in the conference, panelists discussed how science is frequently used strategically rather than substantively in policy (i.e. to support an existing position rather than develop that position).

The final session of the conference brought many of these ideas together. In “Science Activation: How Do We Get Our Science Used by Those in Power?”, seismologist Lucy Jones reflected on her experience in successfully working with local government and private industry in Los Angeles to better prepare the city for future earthquakes. Her tips and lessons included:

  • Scientists and non-scientists have different communication styles, and scientists’ emphasis on uncertainty can hinder effective communication.
  • Use scientific information to reduce uncertainty whenever possible, by focusing on describing future scenarios based on scientific consensus rather than the probabilities of potential outcomes.
  • Provide policymakers with actionable information to empower them to make decisions, and maintain relationships with stakeholders throughout the process.
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At the final session of the AAAS Annual Meeting, Lucy Jones, PhD, and AAAS President Margaret Hamburg, MD, discussed how human stories help engage the public on scientific issues.

Another policy-related highlight of the meeting was an appearance by Kelvin Droegemeier, PhD, the newly confirmed head of the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy. In his first public speech since assuming this position, he highlighted the progress made in science and technology during the Trump administration, including advances in artificial intelligence, quantum sciences, 5G networks, and manufacturing. He also emphasized the role of the private sector in supporting basic research, and the value of assessing all work being done in our country’s research ecosystem, including research in the academic, industrial, nonprofit, and federal agency sectors. By leveraging the strengths of each sector to build new public-private partnerships, he hopes to usher in a “second bold era” of science in the United States. Finally, Dr. Droegemeier acknowledged the need to create safe, welcoming, and accommodating environments for research, as well as to reduce administrative burden for scientists.

The need to improve the climate within science was also addressed at a session entitled “Societies Combatting Sexual Harassment in STEMM Fields,” which formally introduced the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM. This group of almost 60 scientific societies (including ASHG!) plans to develop resources and guidance to address sexual and gender harassment in all its forms, in both society-organized operations like conferences and broadly within the societies’ scientific fields.

Between all of this excellent policy programming, I attended some great scientific sessions as well, on topics ranging from vaccine development to space exploration. Genetics was best represented at a session entitled “Race, Sex, and Genes: Shaping Bodies, Shifting Boundaries, Challenging Myths,” which delved into how social and biological factors intertwine to contribute to health disparities. Panelists discussed how human genetic variation does exist, but is distributed more geographically and as a gradient than on the strict racial lines dictated by society. They also discussed the complexities of consumer genetic tests in relation to group identity, saying that these tests can be valuable for marginalized people looking to reconnect to their ancestral communities, but should not be used to claim group membership.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time at AAAS 2019! I would highly recommend future editions of this conference for anyone who is interested in science policy and communication, or who is interested in expanding their scientific horizons and learning about new topics.

Eve Granatosky, PhD, is the 2018-19 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow. She is currently in her second rotation in the United States Congress, working on health and education issues for Senator Richard Blumenthal. Interested in this fellowship? Applications will open in late February.

Talking Genetics and Genomics on Capitol Hill

Posted By: Nikki Meadows, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

What happens when you put three genetics experts in a room full of curious minds? Ideally, a fascinating conversation that everyone involved will still be talking about days later, and that’s exactly what happened in a U.S. Senate hearing room last Friday, September 28. The health staff of Senator Patty Murray, top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP Committee), invited ASHG, along with the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, to discuss genomics with Congressional staff working on health issues.

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L-R: Genetics experts Eric Green, Neil Lamb, Nikki Meadows, and Kiran Musunuru discussed the importance and uses of genetics and genomics research with U.S. Congressional staff.

With genomic technologies becoming more prevalent in medicine and agriculture, it is critical that those making legislative policies impacting genetics and genomics have a good understanding of genomics research and its uses. NHGRI was represented by its Director, Eric Green, MD, PhD; HudsonAlpha invited their Vice President for Educational Outreach, Neil Lamb, PhD; and ASHG’s spokesperson was Kiran Musunuru, MD, PhD, MPH, an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and our 2019 Program Committee Chair.

Dr. Green opened the conversation by discussing how technology advancements in the last two decades have revolutionized the field of genomics. He described how our ability to now sequence an individual’s entire genome quickly and cheaply has completely transformed how we think about genomics, the types of information we can glean from our genomes, and how we can apply this knowledge to realize the vision of personalized medicine. Dr. Musunuru explained how scientists are able to use genomics to increase our understanding of common diseases such as cardiovascular disease, and to explore possible avenues of treatment.  He also explained why diversity in research cohorts is so important. Dr. Lamb finished up the introduction to genomics by talking about using genomic sequencing to study rare and undiagnosed diseases; he also touched on how using genomics in agriculture may have an impact on the plants and animals that we eat in the future.

A fascinating dialogue ensued between the expert panel and the Congressional staff regarding what personalized medicine will look like in the future, how genomic technologies are going to fit into existing healthcare framework, and the importance of genomic literacy at all levels.

Through participation in events like these on the Hill, ASHG is helping Congress understand the value of genetics research. It also helps us showcase the expertise of our members, and demonstrates that ASHG is a resource to which Congress can turn for expertise on human genetics and associated policy issues. In this way, we are able to build stronger relationships with members of Congress and their staff.

Nikki Meadows, PhD, is the 2017-18 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow. For more information on ASHG’s policy and advocacy programs, please visit the Policy & Advocacy webpage.

Welcome Genetics & Public Policy Fellow: Eve Granatosky

Posted by: Staff

We’re excited to welcome Eve Granatosky, PhD, to the ASHG family!

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Eve Granatosky, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow  (courtesy Dr. Granatosky)

Dr. Granatosky started the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship in August, and we were able to sit down to discuss how she got into science policy and what most excites her about her new position. ASHG and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) co-sponsor the Genetics and Public Policy Fellowship to give genetics professionals an opportunity to contribute to the policy-making process.

ASHG: Why did you apply for the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship?

Eve: The ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship is one of the few fellowships that has a rotational structure, allowing me to sample a few different areas in science policy. I’m not sure exactly what type of policy I want to get into, or which stakeholders I want to work with, so this position will allow me to figure that out. I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in science policy, but uncertain about what their first steps into the field should be.

ASHG: How did your background lead you to science policy

Eve: I started my career at Stonehill College, with a BS in biochemistry, and received my PhD from the University of Notre Dame. While my research focused on the biosynthesis and therapeutic potential of complex molecules derived from soil bacteria, I also developed my love for science policy.

I went into graduate school not really knowing what I wanted to do, but while there, I got to hear a guest lecturer who was a biochemist by training but currently worked for the government on bioterrorism issues abroad. She was using her scientific degree outside of the lab and the purely medical realm. This was the first time I thought that I could do something different with my degree.

I also participated in a Capitol Hill Day, where I had the opportunity to advocate for scientific research to politicians. There, I met graduate students from other universities who were also interested in science policy. Their schools had groups on campus that allowed them to participate in science policy activities year-round, which led me to co-founding the Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame (SPI@ND).

SPI@ND meets monthly to discuss policy issues, but also collaborates with other science policy groups, such as the National Science Policy Network, and runs outreach events on campus and in the community. Though SPI@ND now runs without me, I am proud to say that it is still a strong organization.

ASHG: Why science policy?  

Eve: While at Notre Dame, I was working in a lab that focused on a rare neurodegenerative condition that largely affected children. In this position, I mostly interacted with researchers, but also got to meet some of the patients and their families. It was really inspiring to see the people who our research directly affected. Science policy is an avenue for me to continue to have that direct impact. It creates paths that get the research to the people who need it.

In addition, during my lab work, it occurred to me that there were striking differences in perspectives when it came to how scientists and nonscientists viewed some issues, such as the use of genetically modified organisms. I want to assist in addressing these differences and produce work that will help all stakeholders benefit from the research being done.

ASHG: What policy issues interest you?

Eve: Making diagnostic and therapeutic tools for rare diseases more accessible to patients is a need in the field. We also have to make sure that the regulatory environment is favorable towards these developments, and that patients can more easily participate in clinical trials for new interventions.

Collaboration is a major part of these efforts. Without collaboration between organizations, both private and public, research ceases to advance and useful clinical trials won’t exist.

ASHG: Where do you think genetics is heading?

Eve: I’m really excited to see that the general public is becoming more interested in genetics because of services like direct-to-consumer genetic testing. I obviously love genetics and science, so this is a great time for us! I believe genetic testing will continue to become more accessible and useful, especially when it comes to developing precision medicine.

ASHG: Any final words for fellow scientists interested in science policy?

Eve: Twitter is a fantastic source to learn about science policy. The hashtags #scipol and #SciPolJobs are very active, and useful when it comes to finding opportunities to get involved. Science policy advocates are also engaged on Twitter and will live-tweet hearings or give their opinions on bills. Definitely check out those feeds to get a sense for what you might be interested in and what the field is looking for.

Background on the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship:

The ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship is designed as a bridge for genetics professionals wishing to transition to a policy career. This unique fellowship provides three separate types of experiences: time spent in the National Institutes of Health within the Executive Branch; a staff position on Capitol Hill serving elected officials in the Legislative Branch; and experience working with ASHG in the non-profit science advocacy sector. Applications open annually in February.

Welcome HHMI-ASHG Fellow, Sarah Abdallah

Posted By: Ann Klinck, ASHG Communications and Marketing Assistant

ASHG is excited to be partnering with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for the HHMI-ASHG Medical Research Fellowship. We’re happy to welcome third-year Yale medical student, Sarah Abdallah, to the position.

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Sarah Abdallah, HHMI-ASHG Medical Research Fellow (Courtesy Ms. Abdallah)

This program allows medical, dental, and veterinary students to take a year off from training and perform mentored laboratory research with support of a grant. “Our hope is that the experience will ignite students’ passion for research and encourage them to pursue careers as physician-scientists,” says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education in a press release.

Sarah was interested in the fellowship because “it seemed to provide access to a community of scientists and to enriching experiences on top of my research, like attending conferences and meetings.”

Sarah’s research is focused around obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Specifically, it involves looking for post-zygotic variants in whole-exome sequencing data from individuals with OCD and their parents. These variants arise spontaneously and are not inherited from parents. By identifying the post-zygotic variants, it may be possible to understand the contribution of such variation to OCD development, identify risk genes, and eventually find new treatments.

“I am hoping this project will contribute to the collective understanding of the genetic basis of OCD. Many people with OCD do well, but I have seen firsthand how it can present as a very disabling, persistent disorder, and current pharmacologic treatments are not completely effective for all patients,” Sarah said.

ASHG member and Sarah’s primary mentor, Thomas Fernandez, MD, is an assistant professor in the Child Study Center and of Psychiatry at Yale. Another ASHG member and her co-mentor, James Noonan, PhD, is an associate professor of genetics at Yale.

During her fellowship, Sarah is hoping to gain more experience in computational genomics and is seeking guidance on how to combine her clinical and research interests into a career. She trusts that people like Dr. Fernandez will be able help her find the right path. She is considering a career in child psychiatry and pediatrics, but “either way, I hope to keep contributing to research on the genomics of neurodevelopmental disorders along with my clinical practice,” she said.

Launched 29 years ago, the HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program supports each Fellow through a year-long research project with a mentor of the Fellow’s choosing, and facilitates peer networking among Fellows and alumni as well as seminars with senior investigators. For more information, see the Program website.